Censorship and its discontents

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Censorship and Its Discontents

At a glance, the controversy surrounding Mark Twain's book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn fits a predictable pattern: A disgruntled parent does not want his/her child to read a book that conflicts with their own political, moral, or religious sensibilities. Considering this, they want the book banned - to make the classroom a more “student-friendly” environment. Many agitated parents loathe the way Jim was portrayed, and feel the use of the highly offensive word, “nigger”, should be banned. However, I feel their point is moot; there has always been a controversy over this book. In his introduction to his essay entitled The Controversy Over Race, Peaches Henry states…

“The novel has been criticized, censored, and banned for an array of perceived failings, including obscenity, atheism, bad grammar, coarse manners, low moral tone, and antisouthernism. Every bit as diverse as the reasons for attacking the novel, Huck Finn's detractors encompass parents, critics, authors, religious fundamentalists, right-wing politicians, and even librarians. (Henry 360)”

Besides its moralistic and racial implications, the book is a cornerstone of American Literature and a true benchmark to how far society has come. In the case of Huckleberry Finn, ignorance is not bliss; lest we forget, history will surely repeat itself. Marketed by such literary greats as Lionel Trilling and T.S. Eliot, it is a book for the ages - it shows us what a pre-emancipation south was really like. Huck Finn should be kept in high school curricula due to the problems of censorship, the historical background of the book, as well as the social and racial parallels of today's society.

Before we delve any deeper, one must ask a few key questions: Is it truly obligatory to ban works of literature? What do people gain from these prohibitions? The answer is quite simple: one gains nothing from a restriction, at least in the context with the banning of books. The reason that this book is banned is elementary: the “n-word” is used explicitly many times throughout the book. This, in itself, presents various controversies. Who decides to ban the books?

This offers distinctive moral, as well as social problems. The decision and thought process behind the banning of books is inherently unethical; they are being banned based on someone else's behalf - not the reader's. This takes the power out of your hands - you can no longer enjoy a classical American novel because it conflicted with someone else's idea of morality. Strange. What is the reasoning behind other's want to ban such a novel? If society was so fragile that a book could disturb and corrupt a student's education - it would not be a world worth living in. Banning a book does not solve a problem. If there is anything that can be learned from the American prohibition of alcohol, it's that people yearn for something taboo. This controversy, in itself, has arguably made the book into what it is today.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has not always occupied its present high place in the canon of American literature. When it was first published in 1885, the book disturbed and offended many reviewers, particularly spokesmen for the genteel tradition. (Marx 291)

The very act of trying to abolish a book from high school curricula is sin - If the first amendment means anything, it should be directly applied in such an argument. Straight out of the first amendment: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.” The amendment allows protest against today's moral codes as well as the freedom of speech. Such literature shouldn't be concealed because it offends the ethical code of the censor. Thus, someone's idea of immorality creates controversy, and provokes new ideals - as well as thought processes. To surrender your rights makes the first amendment moot; the principles of freedom will eventually fail and the gift of free speech will be taken away. Censorship has trumped the first amendment in the past, and it should not be so. Restricting books means that our “unalienable rights” are unrecognized. Those who do distinguish these rights have immense power over those that do not. So, the midst of the problem may not just be censorship; censorship is a mere symptom of a much larger problem. Prohibition is synonymous to political power used unfairly. The very idea of censorship in fundamentally unethical - it degrades the opinions of an individual and disregards them - in essence, they are trying to set up a public opinion of a certain subject. The idea of censorship stems from an idea many have labeled “political correctness.” This deems certain controversial ideas not worthy of discussion - this affects not only personal freedoms, but public ones as well. If one cannot read a book based solely on someone else's opinion - then it opens new political issues as well. Politics generally emanate from philosophy - which emanate from a group of ideas based on the product of the times - which is what Huckleberry Finn was. The policy of banning works will always outweigh the positive effects.

However, no censorship - in a society - is innately impossible. Every culture on this earth is composed of human beings. Each being has an ego, biases, superegos, and personal agendas. Even though no censorship in a society may be impossible to attain, we can certainly have a no-censorship rule on literature. Any and every society, at some point or another, deems something less acceptable than other ideas. In our case, we are living in the shadow of a great generation that finally eliminated racial and social problems. Now, we are trying to eliminate the very words that were used against African Americans during their incarceration. What one must understand about being politically correct is our ability to forget about certain subjects. If we forget about the context of “nigger” then we ultimately will lose the battle. History has repeated itself more times than none, and remembering the inequality and associating the horror of such a word with imprisonment serves to keep us - as a people, acutely aware to that preceding problem.

Banning Huck Finn from school curricula is not only unethical; it is a constant reminder of the gross injustices committed upon the African American race of yesterday - it serves as an 'Aide-mémoire' not only to the pre-civil war south, but to the civil rights movement as well.

Twain's apparent “perpetuation of racial stereotypes” through his portrayal of Jim and other blacks in Huck Finn bears relation to his use of “nigger” and has fostered vociferous criticism from anti-Huck Finn forces. Like the concept “nigger”, Twain's depiction of blacks, particularly Jim, represents the tendency of the dominant white culture to saddle blacks with traits that deny their humanity and mark them as inferior. Critics disparage scenes that depict blacks as childish, inherently less intelligent than whites, superstitious beyond reason and common sense, and grossly ignorant of Standard English. Further, they charge that in order to entertain his white audience, Twain relied upon the stock convention of “black minstrelsy” which “drew upon European tradition of using the mask of blackness to mock individuals or social forces.” Given the seemingly negative stereotypical portraits of blacks, parents concerned that children, black and white, be exposed to positive models of blacks are convinced that Huck Finn is inappropriate for secondary classrooms.” (Henry 368)

What should first be addressed is Twain's “perpetuation of racial stereotypes.” What many of the would-be censors do not understand is simple: Twain did not perpetuate any racial stereotypes. What Twain did was uncomplicated; he wrote a book that was the product of the environment and the times. Of course, it is arguable that modern-day stereotypes have formed off of Twain's writing; however, it is simply a sad fact that most of the slaves in the pre-civil war south were unintelligent. This, in itself, is not racist due to a few things: during those times, blacks were slaves - and therefore did not receive any formal education. Therefore, it is easy to infer that blacks were inherently unintelligent because they were uneducated. This does not challenge a black person's actual intelligence level, but merely promotes the fact that flawed institutions produce uneducated people. Twain was not being racist in his gratuitous use of the word “nigger”. Once again, that word was a product of the times. In fact, it was essential that Twain wrote what he wrote to educate future audiences what it was actually like in Twain's south. That word was commonplace. Slavery was commonplace. Gross inequality and injustice was commonplace.

The black man's denial of freedom was a sad fact of the pre-civil war south, and servers as a constant reminder to our previous society's flaws, and as a warning. A warning that is more powerful than words, and travels through many generations of human thought - this warning is one of great importance to not only our society, but to the world. When one enslaves a human being, you rob them of what it means to be human - their freedom, their rights, and their liberty. So, The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn reminds our culture of what a mass-incarceration of an entire race can do to the human psyche. Woodard and MacCann, two pro-censor Huck Finn advocates, argue that “Jim has the information-base of a child. (Henry 370)” What Woodard and MacCann fail to realize is that Jim did have the information base of a child. Southern slaves were not formally educated, and it is common knowledge that they did, in fact, have immature tendencies and knowledge due to the absence of intellectual growth. Further, we can infer Mark Twain was not racist because “you knew which side Twain was on when Huck shouted to Jim, “They're after us!” - us. Accusing Huck of racism is cuckoo considering what caused some 19th-century moralists to say Huck should be kept from the tender eyes of children. (Will 92)” When Huck feels as though he has done a social wrong by not telling Miss Watson where her escaped slave Jim is, moralists become upset. Nonetheless, this was the case in Huckleberry's south - blacks were a piece of property during his time and nothing can be said to revert this.

The explicit racism that existed in Mark Twain's day that he colorfully reflected in Huck Finn no longer exists in today's society. The culture of America has changed and has seen massive social change that included many innocent deaths and gross public injustices - eventually leading to emancipation and equal rights. It has led to a society today that is fortunate enough to hardly see those extremes. Although the explicit racism has disappeared, its insidious reflection remains and implicit racism is widespread. Research in Psychology has recently shown subtle differences in the way we see our fellow Americans. Words such as “good” or “clean” are associated more quickly with Caucasian images. Words such as “evil” and “unclean” are associated more quickly with African American faces. This effect is astonishingly found across age groups, years of education, social/economic status, and more shockingly, across races as well. Therefore, it breeds a destructive self-hate in many African Americans. The reason Huck Finn becomes so important is because it keeps everyone aware of the explicit racism of the past, and therefore will help raise more debate on how we can, as a nation, combat the implicit racism that still infects us as a nation. It also helps stop the growth of implicit racism, as it keeps human suffering and inequality fresh in our minds. If Huck Finn is ever banned as a source of debate, we may forget the racism that plagued Finn's old south - and may eventually warm to the idea, which is absurd in its own sense.

Huck Finn should not be banned due to censorship, historical, and racial issues. In a world where we are still fighting a constant battle against racism, Huckleberry Finn serves as a reminder as to what happens when one race declares themselves superior over another. Censoring such a novel violates our first amendment rights, and perverts our “unalienable rights”. Banning Huck Finn from high school curricula would prove destructive, and it would only kill freedom, and not eliminate what they were trying to destroy. Banning Huck Finn would be caustic because it serves as a reminder to the times, and as a warning to the evil the human race is capable of. Simply put, the banning of this book is not an option; it serves as a memento and will remain a chilling part of American history and literature.

Works Cited

Henry, Peaches. The Struggle for Tolerance: Race and Censorship in Huckleberry Finn. Ed. James S. Leonard. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. Print.

Marx, Leo. "Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling and Huckleberry Finn." The American Scholar 1953. Print.

Will, George F. "Huck at a Hundred." Newsweek 18 Feb. 1985. Print.